Chasing Dark Skies on Dartmoor (Capturing the Milky Way and More under Pristine Skies)

In this article for the first time, I am chasing dark skies by doing astronomy in the wild, this allows you to see things that are not just possible to see from urban areas. So hopefully this article will inspire you to do the same.

In today's world, seeing the night sky is increasingly difficult. Light pollution has been slowly getting worse reducing what we can see in the sky. In London where I am usually based the sky is orange and only the brightest stars are usually visible with the naked eye. So, I really need to go off the grid to find somewhere that is remote enough to be dark. In a country like the UK, where the cities and towns are quite close together, it will take quite some time to escape the light pollution.

To do this I decided to go to the Dartmoor national park, in the south west of England. As far as Dartmoor is concerned, I decided to explore the northern section, as it would be dark since there are no other settlements nearby and the Exmoor national park is also nearby.

I also chose Dartmoor because it is the only part of England where wild camping is legal. Meaning I could camp anywhere barring a few restrictions. One of which is that you can only sleep in a one or two man tent. So, I got my camping gear, some supplies and a good pair of hiking boots and headed off.

My first step on this journey was to spray myself with a lot of mosquito repellent to ward off what would turn out to be some of the most determined insects I have ever encountered.

Dartmoor is a wild location, with moorland and granite peaks. One of which is our target for this trip is a tor called Black Tor about 10 miles from Okehampton.

Another issue with Dartmoor is it consists of a lot of Bogs which consist of peat and can be quite deep. These bogs are particularly prevalent because the moor is rarely dry to it receiving much more rain than the surrounding lowlands causing them to never dry out.

Dartmoor's often-thick fog and mist have caused many deaths over the centuries as people wandered into bogs.

Unfortunately, this bad weather does not make Dartmoor ideal for stargazing. So, I made sure before heading to the moors that the weather was going to be clear.

The general plan was to avoid the live fire area that the British Army uses in the centre of the moor. So to avoid any unwanted and potentially lethal interruptions when observing or sleeping.

To get to Black Tor I roughly had to follow the West Okement River, to do this I first had to get to Meldon Viaduct. 

Once the sun set below the horizon it was immediately obvious that the sky was going to be exceptionally dark night. Before long there were hints of a ribbon appearing across the sky. This soon turned into the Milky Way. You could clearly see dark lanes in the Milky Way from one horizon to the next when viewing the Milky Way. This is a great indicator of a truly dark sky.

Looking around the night sky constellations appeared insanely bright. Asterisms like the Big Dipper or Plough were so bright it was almost unbelievable that I would sometimes struggle to see all the stars of the asterism in London.

My eyes were drawn to a vast sky full of jewels and filled with more stars than usual. 

Along with this, a meteor shower occurred, as seen in the time-lapse footage. This was because I was catching the build up to the Perseids meteor shower. Which made the whole night awe inspiring.

I also noticed Sagittarius with the famous teapot asterism. Something that I rarely see as you need a low clear horizon to see from my latitude.

I noticed the Andromeda Galaxy which, at about 152,000 light years, is the furthest object visible with the human eye in the night sky.

My next step was to capture a picture of the Milky Way. With my Canon M100, I used a 24mm Canon Pancake lens. Unfortunately, while the camera is good for the price it does not support an Intervalometer. Which would be a problem as I intended to take a lot of photos. Even though you can control the camera with your phone, the default Canon app is not very flexible. Fortunately, there is an android app called Camera Connect & Control that gives me all the features I need, for a small payment.

After taking a few test shots in which, I checked for star trails at various exposures I settled for a seven second exposure at an ISO of 2500.

This gave me sharp stars. I built up a large bank of captures and later post processed the results using the free windows application Sequator to give this amazing photo.

I then captured the Andromeda Galaxy, using the same settings. I captured about fifty shots to give this stacked image. What is great is that if you zoom in you can see Andromeda's satellite galaxy M110.

I decided to look for Jupiter in the sky, do a few last shots with it visible just above Dartmoor's granite rocks, as the clouds started to roll in.

At this point the wind had picked up and black clouds were racing across the sky so I quickly packed everything away and got in the tent.

The next morning, I awoke to a different world. I woke to rain and wind and thick fog in every direction. I quickly made some breakfast and packed everything away.

I headed back the right way this time along the hilltops and not in the valley. Making it back to the reservoir in half the time it took to get there.

By this point, the weather had turned and it looked as if it would not get any better for the remainder of the week, so I left the moor. However, I was very happy with what I had managed to capture in such a short time under such great skies.

If you would like to see more on how I got across the moors and the astrophotography photos I ended up taking please watch the episode below.

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